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Instrument for measuring the head in criminal identification system, Paris, France, 1883-1900

The Préfecture de Police in Paris used this thickness compass as part of the Bertillon criminal identification system. It measured the length and breadth of the head. French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon (1853 –1914) developed an identification system called anthropometrics. This recorded detailed physical measurements to identify individuals. Bertillon used the thickness compass and other tools to measure height, head circumference, arm length, leg length, finger lengths and eyeball protrusion. His system was used to identify suspects in criminal cases. The system was extremely popular in France, leading to many convictions. It was superseded by more accurate and less labour-intensive fingerprinting. Bertillon pioneered many modern forensics techniques such as the ‘mug shot’, which is the standardised photography of criminals.

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Glossary: anthropometry

The measuring of body parts so that comparisons can be made. The aim is to measure normal and abnormal development. In the past, it has also been used in attempts to measure racial difference.

Glossary: anthropometrical measure

The practise of measuring different parts of the human body in the hope of using them to determine personal characteristics. The practise is no longer accepted as scientific.